Convention celebrates years of work to protect bighorn sheep

Bighorn sheep enthusiasts will gather in Reno for the annual Sheep Show from Thursday to Saturday.

The national convention and sporting show offers a mixture of hunting exhibits and seminars, book signings, banquets, award ceremonies and fundraising activities.

The Sheep Show is produced by the Wild Sheep Foundation, a conservation organization whose purpose is “to put and keep wild sheep on the mountain.”

First created as the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep in 1974, the organization changed its name in 2008 to reflect a worldwide emphasis on bighorn sheep conservation. The foundation has raised and invested more than $115 million in conservation projects, including in Nevada, according to its website.

In the late 1960s, Nevada’s bighorn sheep population numbered about 2,500, compared with 12,000 today. Much of that growth can be attributed to the Fraternity of the Desert Bighorn and Nevada Bighorns Unlimited, which have put millions of dollars and thousands of hours of labor into conservation projects.

As the bighorn sheep conservation movement was gaining steam among Nevada’s sportsmen, so, too, was the interest in sheep at the Nevada Legislature. In 1973, six members of the Assembly introduced AB 139, which would designate the desert bighorn sheep as the state animal.

Discussion of the bill was first heard during a Feb. 21, 1973, meeting of the Assembly Environment Public Resources and Fish and Game Committee. There was a brief discussion of previous efforts to designate a state animal. Those earlier attempts focused on the mustang (1971), mule deer (1963) and the Pyramid Lake Sea Monster (1959).

According to the legislative history, when AB 139 reached the Senate, an attempt was made to amend the bill’s language by replacing the words “desert bighorn sheep” with “mustang.”

Sen. Young, who proposed the amendment, testified that “The bighorn sheep is, undoubtedly, a majestic animal, but its beauty is exceeded only by its frailty, its majesty, by its infirmities … It doesn’t have the stamina, intelligence, nor the courage that I feel any animal should have that is going to serve as the symbol of our fast growing state.”

Sen. Gibson countered by saying: “I think someone needs to defend the bighorn sheep. His statement that the bighorn sheep lacks courage, stamina and intelligence … indicates that he has probably never seen one in action, because my acquaintance with the bighorn sheep was watching them cavort around walls of Black and Boulder Canyons down in the Lake Mead Wildlife Refuge.

“I don’t know about the definition of courage, stamina and intelligence, but the places they go and live and survive indicate they have needed a great amount of each of these three just in order to be present in this day and age. I do think the bighorn sheep is certainly a masterful representative of what Nevada stands for.”

The bill passed out of the Senate by a unanimous vote and was approved by the governor on April 10. On July 1, 1973, the desert bighorn sheep became Nevada’s state animal and, despite setbacks ranging from drought to disease outbreaks, continues to grace the state’s wild country.

Freelance writer Doug Nielsen is a conservation educator for the Nevada Department of Wildlife. His “In the Outdoors” column, published Thursday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, is not affiliated with or endorsed by the NDOW. Any opinions are his own. Find him on Facebook at @dougwritesoutdoors. He can be reached at intheoutdoorslv@gmail.com.

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